Thursday, 4 February 2010

Australian Open Final analysis

Roger Federer’s straight sets victory over Andy Murray in the Australian Open Men’s Final was superb as it was surprising. Given their head to head record most commentators had predicted a tight battle with all most as many tipping Murray to prevail as Federer. So that raises the question of why the final was as one sided as it proved.

A quick look at the statistics would suggest Federer won by playing an aggressive strategy with 46 winners to Murray’s 29. But while World No.1 played with plenty of attacking intent it was in his words ‘controlled aggression’. The tactical aspect of this match was fascinating, which is not surprising as it pitted probably the two smartest players on tour. Murray has been successful in the past by mixing his tactics so that Federer doesn’t have one set of problems to deal with. Whereas the Swiss star has settled on an aggressive strategy in previous encounters, something which proved extremely fruitful in the US Open Final (their sole Grand Slam match) but less so subsequently. Two recent victories suggested that Federer had found a more successful strategy but he still went into the match with a losing record.

The tactics employed by Federer in Sunday’s final were derived from those most recent meetings. Recognising that he had a tendency of over pressing by pulling the trigger too early, Federer adopted a more patient approach. He demonstrated a willingness to engage in long rallies particularly on the backhand side. This was especially important as Murray’s favoured approach was to trade in backhand to backhand rallies. This would normally favour the Scot as he has more consistency & perhaps greater potency in that shot.

But by playing with more patience the emphasis was placed on Murray to take the initiative or at least be more aggressive, which as a counter puncher he’s not as comfortable with. In addition Federer varied the spin on the backhand side with a lot of slices thrown in so that Murray was always slightly off balance & thus less likely to go for clean winners.

And while Federer was more circumspect in his shot selection he was still more than willing to be aggressive when the situation demanded it. Though again there was a noticeable difference here as he didn’t try to hit an outright winner but more often set it up for an easy finish at the net. With his serve also working well he was very comfortable throughout the majority of the match.

These tactics meant that Murray had very little margin for error. He couldn’t rely on the Federer backhand breaking down as it has in the past meaning there were fewer free points from unforced errors & if he dropped the ball short he knew he would punished.

After winning a pretty competitive first set Federer became even more assured in his approach throughout the second set. Holding serve with ease, while continually threatening during Murray’s service games, the pressure was squarely on the British No.1. Unfortunately for fans of Murray he seemed unable or unwilling to change tact until he was two sets down. In the third set he became more aggressive hitting double the amount of winners he had in the first two sets combined & in conjunction with a dip in Federer’s level it was a set that the Scot should have taken. Federer used his experience & what appeared to be superior fitness to close out the match in the tie-breaker. And while it was straight sets victory, at 2 and three quarter hours it was tough match. Something Federer acknowledged by stating it was one his finest victories.

The two things that stood out from the match were firstly Federer’s ability to adjust his approach by curbing his attacking instincts. We have seen this tactical flexibility many times in the past, most notably the 2004 Wimbledon Final when Andy Roddick came out all guns blazing to lead by a set & a break. But in that instance he was playing someone who’s game style matched up very well with his own, as their subsequent encounters have proved. Here Federer faced the counter puncher style that has caused him most problems in his career as witnessed by the problems he’s had up against the likes of Nalbandian, Hewitt, Canas & to certain extent Nadal. That he so ruthlessly overcame this challenge posed by Murray is testament to his tactical thinking & his ability to play a variety of tennis styles. So what was in his early years a hindrance has become one of his greatest strengths.

Correspondingly the worrying aspect for Murray was his inability to alter his tactics in the face of a losing situation. As another player who can play with a great deal of variety as well as someone who’s known for being a smart player it was a surprising turn of events. Whereas against Nadal he was aggressive & controlled many of the points, in the final he resorted to a passive approach. Granted attacking Federer is a whole different proposition to taking on Nadal but where was the selective serve volleying that had been so effective against the Spaniard. Instead of crunching his backhand with intent he was too often content to just engage in regular rallies. For Murray fans this will be a troubling development as his inability to adjust tactics mid match has become a recurring theme particularly in Grand Slam matches. How he deals with this in future will determine whether this is just an aberration in his game or symptomatic of a deeper lying problem. And the answer to this issue will decide whether he will join the Grand Slam club or remain an outsider.

All in all the first Grand Slam of the year provided many moments of quality though may be no standout match. It began with many doubting Roger Federer’s ability to dominate the men’s game in the face of a new generation of players and finishes with the old order pretty much in tact. It will no doubt be another fascinating season in the men’s game but it won’t be a surprising to see a certain Swiss star atop it all at the year end.

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